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Call it a Draw!

Greg McBrayer

Norm Macdonald Successfully Defeats Cancer but Dies in the Process

Norm Macdonald, the greatest stand-up comedian of our generation, has died, and we didn’t even know he was sick.

Many of us laughed with Norm, many of us loved Norm, many of us admired Norm. We admired him because he possessed virtues, virtues that were comic as well as moral: he was independent, irreverent, witty, clever, and had an excellent delivery; but he also exhibited a kind of courage, had a big, kind heart, and was intelligent. Above all, however, he was funny as hell. No one could make us laugh as hard as Norm did. In an age in which most comics avoid disturbing our civic pieties—or avoid comedy all together—Norm soldiered forth. Norm made jokes about rape, pedophilia, and autoerotic asphyxiation; he made jokes about Hitler, 9/11, and death—he transgressed almost every norm. His deadpan delivery killed audiences, and news of his unexpected death was delivered in the same deadpan fashion. One can imagine him grinning impishly at the long-delayed delivery of the punchline.

Norm has been making me laugh for about as long as I can recall, as seems to be the case with so many of us. When I was a child, in the early 1990s, I would stay up past my bedtime without my parents’ knowledge (or perhaps while they were just turning a blind eye) to enjoy the harmless pleasure of watching late-night stand-up comedians on “Evening at the Improv.” It aired on A&E, and I can still recall the channel (34). Norm was something of a regular, and his entry into comedy was through stand-up: it’s where he remained even while pursuing other ventures, and it’s where he returned in the last few years of his life. But I was also a teenager when he became the host of “Weekend Update” on SNL, and as Lorne Michaels pointed out when he was a guest on Norm Macdonald Has a Show, fans of SNL almost always point to their own teenage years as the show’s golden age. In my case, it simply happens to be true. Norm was perfect for the job, unrivaled in his mastery of it—the closest I can recall was when Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon teamed up for the task. In the last decade or so, Norm perfected his craft; he seems to have grown as a comic. While always funny--his recent output was impossibly hilarious--he also became deeper and more penetrating. New media allowed Norm the freedom to pursue unconventional humor in unconventional ways, and to connect with his enormous but highly dispersed audience. His podcast was hilarious (his ads sounded almost ungrateful at times), his Netflix specials and series characteristically fantastic.

It’s not just that Norm was funny; it’s that, in addition to being funny, he was also thoughtful, philosophic. He was widely read in literature, especially Russian literature, and it often seemed he was trying to channel both the dark comedy and tragic sensibility of a Tolstoy—but not Dostoevsky! His joke about suicide as an appropriate response to modern life conveys a similar message to The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He joked about people who battle cancer while himself dying of the affliction. These jokes now appear in a new light. Instead of an irreverent gibe at the sick, we now see Norm’s jokes about death were his own comic attempt to make sense of the universal fate of mankind. He prodded you to consider your own mortality, but with the pleasant palliative of jest. In his recent memoir—a fake memoir, by the way—he noted that the occasion of watching his beloved cat kill a mouse led him to “that hardscrabble truth” that “there is a difference between what a thing is and what it appears to be.” And this reflection led him to attempt, unsuccessfully, to see a picture as merely paint:

"I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is."

The chapter that follows is quite tragic in the distinctions it draws between appearances and reality. Perhaps we need to reread his “memoir” and see it for what it really is. Of course, he also reflected seriously on comedy.

It is no secret that Norm was also deeply pious, a quality almost entirely lacking among our comedians (and a fact notably absent from his Wikipedia page). Norm was a Christian who spoke respectfully and openly of his own faith, who respected the faith of others, and who had little patience for ignorant disrespect of religious belief. Even in the midst of the bawdiest joke, the bluest topic, or the rudest insult, Norm always affirmed his belief when prodded by a guest or host. He looked at the world with wonder and awe, and he saw in it evidence for God. As he tweeted a few years back: “Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, Glory of God. Smart man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.”

Despite coming across as a sort of conservative, and perhaps in part because of it, Norm also eschewed being “political” or “relevant” or “edgy” and looked down upon comedians who thought their task was to speak to the political issues of the day and to lecture their audience. He recognized that what was often praised for bravery was usually nothing but the dominant political views expressed to an entirely sympathetic audience. Comedy, he would wryly observe, is supposed to be funny, not important. He preferred laughter to applause, recognizing that human laughter is a sudden, involuntary response, a kind of relief brought about by the supposed restoration of order in the world which a joke had momentarily called into question. Applause, by contrast, was the polite, intentional response an audience offers to comics of which it consciously approves. He scorned mere approval.

Yet, Norm’s comedy was funny. He made audiences laugh, though he never pandered to them. He didn’t look to flatter them, and that meant he was comfortable when his jokes were met with silence, hisses, or even boos. If a joke didn’t work, that didn’t mean it wasn’t funny—it meant the audience didn’t get it. His jokes, of course, were laugh-out-loud funny. Once you realized what he was doing, you were incapable of restraining your laughter, whether he was roasting a fellow comedian, trolling humorless, dour moralists, or ridiculing powerful television executives, Hollywood types, politicians, and public figures. And the clearest evidence for Norm’s comic genius is the near universal praise bestowed upon Norm by his colleagues in comedy, many of them titans of the field, and by the visible laughter he induced in so many of them. Search the Twitter pages of comics who knew him, and you’ll find a constant refrain: no one was bolder than Norm, and no one made them belly laugh harder.

As a professor of political philosophy, I’ve often reflected on what draws people to the study of philosophy, and I believe there are two main paths: natural science, on one hand, and moral and political considerations, on the other. Increasingly, it seems to me comedy can be a guidepost on the pathway to understanding the world. Wittgenstein once remarked: “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Indeed, the comic poet Aristophanes implies comedy is the best way to understand the world and our place in it, to become wise. Comedy seems to require a certain willingness to question convention, mores, law—at least in speech. Transgression seems to be a necessary precondition for a kind of philosophic thought. One must be willing to question opinions, to face absurdities, and to recognize the laughable character of much if not all of what we humans hold dear. Comedy provides perhaps the safest foray into such sensitive subjects and matters of deepest respect, insofar as it soothes the pain that accompanies facing difficult topics squarely, mitigates the harm it can possibly cause. Comedy even persuades those of us who lack the courage to face such questions squarely that the transgression was, after all, only a joke.

Norm made us laugh, and he made us think. Rest in Peace, Norm. Give our best to Twain, Shakespeare, and Aristophanes, should you run into them.

The author would like to thank his friends Alex Priou, David Bahr, Thomas Cleveland, and Nathan Goss for their help and advice on this piece.

Featured image: Norm Macdonald in Weekend Update on SNL from NBCUniversal via Getty Images.

Greg McBrayer is Associate Professor of Political Science, Director of Citizen Programs at the Ashbrook Center, and Director of the Ashland University Core Curriculum. He is also a co-host of The New Thinkery podcast. He invites you to follow him and to follow The New Thinkery on Twitter.